Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Movies in Brief: Mellencamp, Murder and 'Margaret'

It’s About You
Directed by Kurt and Ian Markus
Through January 12, 2012
IFC Center, 333 Sixth Avenue, New York, NY

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Through January 17, 2012

Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York, NY

Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Through January 12, 2012

Cinema Village, 22 East 12th St, New York, NY

John Mellencamp in It's About You
It’s About You, Kurt and Ian Markus’ documentary, follows John Mellencamp through sessions for his most recent album, 2010’s No Better Than This, and the tour that followed. Using historic locations like Sun Studios in Memphis and primitive techniques like mono and a single mic (the producer was T Bone Burnett), Mellencamp's record superbly marries his roots-rock writing style with his usual social awareness.

When there’s recording, rehearsing or performing, It’s About You is first rate: Mellencamp accompanies himself on acoustic guitar on one of his strongest new songs, “Clumsy Ol’ World,” and he and his crack band literally shred both new and vintage tunes like “Pink Houses” onstage. But there’s an annoying self-indulgence at work, since Kurt Markus took Mellencamp’s admonition seriously when he started filming to make the film about himself--the filmmaker--instead of the musical artist we are interested in.

So Kurt’s sophomoric, stream-of-consciousness narration dominates the movie, and it comes off arty and pretentious. Too bad Markus couldn’t leave the wit and wisdom to Mellencamp’s songs and simply remain behind the camera: since Markus is a photographer, his 8mm footage is often striking, especially what’s shot in the studio and the tour’s cities and small towns. That imagery says more about Mellencamp’s ongoing lyrical concerns about the direction America is headed than any of Kurt’s outbursts.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s earlier films Distant, Climates and Three Monkeys were interesting but ultimately frustrating failures. His latest, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, is a leap forward for Ceylan and immeasurably superior in every way.

The movie begins as a police procedural: a group of law enforcement officers travels to a remote area with two murder suspects to find where they dumped the body. While spending interminable time waiting around, the men engage in small talk (including discussing the pluses and minuses of buffalo yogurt), and we gradually discover that those involved--the lawmen, a district attorney and a local doctor--have their own ethical and personal problems.

Ceylan’s long uninterrupted takes begin with the film’s haunting opening shot from afar, as headlights of three vehicles move through a deserted landscape. The magnificent compositions keep viewers alert, even when the narrative hits a snag or two: would the police really be so inept as to forget a body bag and not have room in any vehicle to fit a body, and would an autopsy be conducted with the victim’s wife and son right outside the room? The director’s singular visual talent compels us to keep watching for more than 2-½ hours of what turns out to be a shaggy corpse story.

Damon and Paquin in Lonergan's Margaret
The struggle to finally bring Margaret to the screen has been well documented: writer-director Kenneth Lonergan made this illuminating character study of Lisa Cohen, an Upper West Side teenager who witnesses a gruesome (and life-changing) bus accident, back in 2005. It has since been sitting on the shelf, and now--edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker--although clocking in at 2-½ hours, it’s worth catching wherever it’s playing.

Like You Can Count on Me, his excellent 2000 feature film debut, and his off-Broadway plays This Is Our Youth, Lobby Hero and The Starry Messenger, Lonergan’s Margaret is less concerned with plot than character and dialogue; the film’s textures are like real life, as people interact in ways that are completely antithetical to typical Hollywood movies. Showing scene after scene of Lisa at school, at home or dealing with the aftermath of the fatal accident, Margaret seems like a cinema-verite documentary or even a reality TV show--that is, if the latter had any brains or empathy for its characters.

The acting by Anna Paquin as Lisa and J. Smith-Cameron as her harried actress mother is impeccable; Lonergan himself has juicy scenes as Paquin’s divorced father, Josh Hamilton, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon and Allison Janney provide smart support, and even Jeanne Berlin--normally an exasperating actress--is very fine.

Margaret doesn’t pretend to have any clear-cut answers for Lisa’s difficulties--the final sequence, set during a performance of The Tales of Hoffman at the Metropolitan Opera, is a perfectly pitched catharsis--making it mesmerizing but messy, like life.

No comments: